Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon return in the extraordinary new novel in the #1 New York Times–bestselling series by the grand master of adventure.
In 1902, the volcano Mt. Pelée erupts on the island of Martinique, wiping out an entire city of thirty thousand―and sinking a ship carrying a German scientist on the verge of an astonishing breakthrough. More than a century later, Juan Cabrillo will have to deal with that scientist’s legacy.
During a covert operation, Cabrillo and the crew meticulously fake the sinking of the Oregon―but when an unknown adversary tracks them down despite their planning and attempts to assassinate them, Cabrillo and his team struggle to fight back against an enemy who seems to be able to anticipate their every move. They discover that a traitorous American weapons designer has completed the German scientist’s work, and now wields extraordinary power, sending the Oregon on a race against time to stop an attack that could lead to one man ruling over the largest empire the world has ever known.
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A01Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Nine months ago
The X-47B prototype attack drone made a sweeping turn, only minutes away from the target eighty miles northwest of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. Frederick Weddell adjusted the frequency-hopping algorithm of the jamming transmission. His mission was to block the control signal coming in from the drone’s operator at Naval Base Ventura County in California and recode its onboard navigation system, causing the aircraft and its one thousand pounds of fuel to smash into a derelict barge.
Even without the two smart bombs it was capable of carrying, the drone could cause a deadly terrorist attack on the U.S.
Weddell relished the challenge. “We’re gonna do it,” he said to no one in particular, although there were two other men in the small room filled to the brim with electronic equipment and displays. The eighty-foot communications vessel anchored near the mouth of the Potomac was otherwise unoccupied except for its captain, who was topside on the bridge. Weddell adjusted his wire-frame glasses and looked up at the largest monitor to check the view from a camera on the deck. The drone was in its first turn after takeoff, a white wedge against the orange glow of dusk behind it.
To accomplish their mission, jamming the control signal wasn’t enough. If the drone’s contact with its controller was lost, it would revert to autonomous mode and return to its base at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, the Maryland flight center that served as the test facility for most of the Navy’s aerial weapons systems. The key was to establish a new control authorization so that the coordinates for an alternative target designation could be loaded. In this case the unmanned aerial vehicle would be instructed to crash into the barge at five hundred miles per hour.
This attack was the worst case scenario for the Pentagon. No one—not the drone designers nor the Joint Chiefs—thought that the onboard systems could be hacked. But ever since a top secret RQ-170 Sentinel reconnaissance drone crash-landed in Iran, top brass had demanded that the Air Force and Navy prove that their communications protocols were unbreakable. Apart from losing a drone that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, the crash had given Iran a free peek inside one of America’s most advanced pieces of technology. If the Iranians could bring it down, they might be able to wrest a drone’s control away from its operator. The military was pouring funds into a program to make sure that never happened.
That was the reason for this hijacking simulation.
The call had gone out for the best and brightest in the drone community to put together a team to serve as the enemy infiltration unit. An electrical engineer by education and now the Air Force’s top communications specialist, Weddell had jumped at the chance. He was an expert in all manner of signal transmission, encryption, and disruption, so he was chosen to head up the signal intercept mission. His team consisted of two other top-notch scientists.
Lawrence Kensit, a mousey fellow with a stooped gait and an acne-scarred face, was a computer scientist and physicist who had gotten his PhD from Cal Tech when he was twenty. Despite his penchant for calling anyone he felt didn’t rise to his level of brilliance “irredeemably stupid”—including officers who depended on his work—he nevertheless became the military’s most brilliant drone software developer. He sat to Weddell’s right tapping away on a keyboard set in front of three screens winking with data.
The second man was Douglas Pearson, a hardware designer responsible for the technology that went into the most advanced drones in the military’s arsenal. He was a bear of a man whose bombastic voice and enormous gut suited someone who didn’t say “no” too much and wasn’t used to hearing the word, either. He ruled his fiefdom with an iron fist and would argue loudly with anyone who disagreed with his viewpoint. He sat to Weddell’s left with his feet up on the counter, a tablet computer in one hand and a coffee mug in the other.
If the three of them couldn’t crack the drone’s command system, no one else in the world could. After confirming that the drone would in fact proceed on an intercept path toward the derelict barge, Weddell planned to veer it from its course and have it waggle its wings over Patuxent in a final flourish before returning it to Ventura control.
Pearson slurped his coffee loudly before setting it down and tapping his tablet against the counter. “What’s happening, Larry? I’ve got nothing on the linkup so far.”
“Dr. Weddell,” Kensit said without looking away from his screens, “please remind Dr. Pearson that I don’t respond to that nickname. I prefer ‘Dr. Kensit,’ but I will accept Lawrence, even though that privilege is usually reserved for people who could be considered equals.” He paused before adding, “If it’s not clear, I don’t consider him an equal.”
“Equal in what way, Doctor Kensit?” Pearson said with a mocking laugh. “We sure aren’t equal in height.”
Pearson snorted. “Why don’t I just call you shorty? Or how about pipsqueak?”
“My height is lower relative to yours, but close to average,” Kensit replied without inflection. “Much like your IQ.”
“Enough,” Weddell said, fed up with their constant bickering. “We’re not going through this right now.” He had spent half of the last six months playing referee between them.
“We’re about to win this thing,” he continued, “so try to remain civil until we’re done. We’ll only have a direct line of sight for two more minutes. What’s your status, Lawrence?”
Kensit pressed a final key with a decisive snap. “If Dr. Pearson’s hardware calculations are correct, as soon as you are able to wrest the control signal away from Ventura, I will be able to reconfigure the onboard navigation protocols.”
Weddell nodded and put his plan for blocking the transmission into motion. Spoofing the GPS navigation wouldn’t work because all US drones relied on inertial navigation to prevent just such a tactic. He had to be much more creative. Using an antenna of his own design mounted on the deck of the boat, he blasted the receiver on the X-47B with an overload spike that would cause the onboard systems to momentarily freeze. The sensitive part of the operation was to do it just long enough so that its receiver would immediately go into search mode again, but not so long that it recognized someone was attempting to compromise its protocols and cause it to revert to autonomous operation.
“Get ready, Lawrence,” Weddell said. “Remember you’ll have only twenty seconds to acquire the signal.”
Of course he does.
Weddell turned to Pearson. He was responsible for disabling the drone’s automated self-destruct, which would engage if the drone’s sensors detected an unauthorized signal controlling it. “Doug, are you ready to go?”
“Let’s do this,” Pearson said, rubbing his hands together.
“Okay. On my mark. Three. Two. One. Mark.”
Weddell pressed the ENTER button, and the pulse bombarded the drone. His screen confirmed that he had a direct hit.
Kensit began typing furiously. The seconds ticked by. All Weddell could do from this point was watch. He kept his eyes on the monitor above him. The drone remained on its original heading.
“Status, Lawrence.” The countdown timer he’d programmed into his laptop gave them ten more seconds.
“I’m isolating the control subroutines,” Kensit said, which was as close Weddell would get to an estimate from him.
More ticks. The wait was excruciating. For the first time in the entire process, Weddell was completely powerless.
“Five seconds, Lawrence!”
“You can do it, Kensit,” Pearson said.
Kensit’s fingers flew across the keyboard, and then he pulled them away like a concert pianist finishing a minuet.
“I know,” he said. “We now have control.” He looked pointedly at Pearson. “Try not to make my brilliance a moot point.”
Although this drone wouldn’t actually explode if Pearson couldn’t disable the autodestruct, a switch inside the X-47B would trip in the event the autodestruct sequence wasn’t terminated. The inspectors checking the drone later would know that the hijacking mission had failed. There would be no partial credit.
Pearson used the tablet as deftly as Kensit had manipulated his keyboard. Weddell was focused on entering new targeting coordinates into the nav system. He finished just as Pearson called out in triumph, “Take that, Uncle Sam! We done got your drone!”
Weddell and Pearson clapped and slapped palms. All they could get from Kensit was a raised eyebrow and a shrug, as if he shouldn’t celebrate something that he fully expected to happen.
The festivities became short-lived when Weddell noticed the X-47B turning on the monitor. It should have been heading away from them on the course towards the barge. Instead it was flying directly toward them.
And it was descending.
“What the hell is going on, Lawrence?”
Kensit shook his head in bewilderment. “This can’t be.”
Pearson took his feet down and stared at Kensit. “What did you do, Larry?”
“I didn’t do anything to cause this.”
“Cause what?” Weddell asked.
“The drone is locked onto the signal we’re broadcasting.”
“What?” Weddell tried to disengage the signal they were broadcasting, but the computer wouldn’t respond. “How is that possible?”
“I...I’m not sure.”
Weddell looked up at the monitor. The X-47B was growing larger on the screen every moment. They had less than a minute before the drone and its payload of fuel completed its kamikaze attack and blew the boat apart. “Can you reprogram it?”
Kensit just gaped at his screen, perplexed and mute.
Weddell rushed over and shook him by the shoulders. “I said, can you reprogram it?”
For probably the first time in his life, Kensit uttered the words, “I don’t know.”
“You’ve got to try or we’re all dead.” He wheeled around and pointed at Pearson. “See if you can engage that autodestruct.”
Pearson nodded furiously and hunched over his tablet. Weddell raced for the door at the front of the room.
“Where are you going?” Kensit asked.
“If you guys can’t reassert control, I can at least stop our antenna from broadcasting.”
He threw open the door and ran up to the bridge, where he found the captain staring at the drone diving toward them.
“Get us moving now!” Weddell shouted.
The captain didn’t need to be told why and throttled up the engine.
Weddell climbed up onto the top deck above the bridge where the antenna was located. If he disconnected the power cable, the broadcast would cease. Even if the drone had locked onto their initial position, moving the ship would get them out of its path.
He reached the antenna and was about to reach for the cable when the ship lurched forward. He was thrown back, tripped on a railing, and struck his head against the bulkhead.
He saw stars for a few seconds and shook his head to clear them before crawling toward the antenna. The black cable leading to the dish lay exposed on the white deck.
He glanced up and saw the slash of white wing plunging toward them, the drone’s black air intake gaping like the maw of a manta ray. The banshee wail of the jet engine foretold a fiery end if he couldn’t disable their broadcast. It looked like neither Kensit nor Pearson had been successful.
Weddell grasped the power cable with both hands and yanked it. The cable held firm. He braced his feet against the dish’s rotating pedestal and put everything he had into it, his muscles straining in protest.
With a sudden pop, the cable flew backward in a shower of sparks, sending Weddell tumbling.
He picked himself up and saw the cable had completely disconnected from the antenna. There was no way it was still broadcasting.
The water splashed in whitecaps from the bow, indicating that they were now doing a good twenty knots. They’d have plenty of distance from the drone’s impact.
Weddell turned his attention back to the drone so that he could tell the crash investigators exactly where it went down. But to his horror, the drone continued to make adjustments in its course.
It was still aimed straight at them, no more than five seconds away.
He scrambled to his feet in a mad dash to jump overboard, but he was far too late. Time seemed to compress as the drone plunged into the ship and exploded.
His last thought before the fireball consumed him wasn’t of his wife or his mother or his German shepherd, Bandit. It was focused on the fact that this event was no accident. Frederick Weddell used his brain’s final impulses to wonder who it was that killed him.
Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela
Harbormaster Manuel Lozada shook his head in disbelief as his boat approached the rusting hulk that he was about to inspect before it unloaded its cargo at the La Guanta docks. He shielded his eyes from the setting sun to give himself a better look. From a distance the pattern of mottled green paint on the hull seemed designed to camouflage the ship for a jungle cruise, but up close he could see that it was just a sloppy patch job in which various shades of puke green were splashed on the sides to cover up bare spots, and even the newer paint was now flaking away.
As his boat passed by the stern, Lozada could make out the name Dolos on the champagne-glass fantail, the only mark of elegance on an otherwise profoundly ugly vessel. The flag flying from the jack staff was of a Liberian registry, which matched the information he’d obtained independently.
The ship was large—560 feet long—but nothing compared to the massive supertankers that berthed at the Pamatacual oil terminal only five miles away. The Dolos wasn’t a container ship, but rather an old tramp steamer that carried whatever needed to be transported between the less prominent ports of the world. This one in particular looked like it should have been sent to the scrap yard last century. If it ever got caught in even a minor gale, Lozada wouldn’t be surprised if the old girl broke in half and sank.
Two of the five cranes on board were so corroded that they could not possibly be operational. Trash and broken machinery was scattered across the deck without a care. Twin funnels belched black smoke. The filthy white superstructure was situated between the six forward holds and two aft holds, and two bridge wings poked out from either side. The windows on the pilothouse were so dingy that Lozada could see the spot the pilot had wiped clear to see through during the five-mile trip into the harbor.
Lozada had served in the Venezuelan navy for twenty years and had remained a reservist since becoming harbormaster, and he would have been keel-hauled if he’d let a ship of his reach this state of disrepair. Only the cheapest or most desperate shippers would trust their...
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